Commentaries - May 2013
One of the recognized problems in research, any kind of research, is the repetition of a single original finding or opinion by other, later researchers as if those others had arrived at the finding or opinion independently. This, then, may result in an extensive bibliography of secondary sources for a position that, in fact, has only a single source. Obviously there is no problem with building on the work of others, but there isa problem if the original source was flawed.
In 1986 I gave a paper at the Anthropological Association Meetings in Philadelphia entitled “On the Insanity of Cornplanter.” My work during the previous ten years had been concerned with various aspects of the Seneca Indian/Quaker missionary relationship during the early reservation period (1798-1824), but Chief Cornplanter had been a tangential figure for me largely because he lived on his own land downriver from the reservation. Still I was aware that Cornplanter was accepted by various scholars to have had a “psychotic episode” in some accounts and a “depression” in others in the year 1820, and that, of course, was based on missionary accounts. Because I had frequently called into question the judgments and conclusions of the missionaries, I decided to look back at the evidence presented on the mental state of a dynamic and pragmatic individual who was in his mid-eighties in 1820. He lived until 1836, active until the end and was described in 1830 by a white reporter as “a smart, active man, seemingly possessed of all his strength of mind and perfect health.”
So, how to explain the “psychosis?”
I believe his behavior can alternatively be read as that of a man in control of himself, responding in a strategic and culturally appropriate way to a difficult socio-political situation. Further, I would suggest that a judgment that he was crazy, while enlivening history in a literary manner, is the least interesting conclusion that can be drawn from the material and a closure of the possibility of comprehending the historical situation while ignoring the biases of the primary sources.
Cornplanter, a chief by virtue of achievement and not by traditional ascription, was born sometime between 1732 and 1740 at Conewaugus on the Genessee River in New York. His father was a white man (John O’Bail or Abeel) from an Albany family with whom Cornplanter had only incidental and anecdotal contact. His Seneca affilitation through his mother was apparently total, as was appropriate in this matrilineal society, and his mixed-blood status is never noted as informing his own behavior or that of others to him. Handsome Lake, the Seneca visionary and prophet, was his half-brother and, in 1799 when the Quaker missionaries first arrived through Cornplanter’s invitation to the settlement on the Allegheny River, the two brothers and their families were sharing a single residence on Cornplanter’s private land. That Cornplanter had private land granted by Pennsylvania on which he and his heirs continued to reside is a testimony of Pennsylvania’s gratitude to him. His reputation for cooperating with whites was additionally built on his role in the signing of two treaties, both opposed by the famous chief Red Jacket, the great Seneca orator. The first of those treaties, in 1784, fixed the western boundary of Iroquois lands, and the second in 1794, relinquished Ohio lands. The dichotomized strategies of Cornplanter and Red Jacket were further reflected in their response to Indian involvement with agencies of white power. Cornplanter frequently sought accommodation to enhance the position of the Seneca and Red Jacket urged separation. It seems likely that the tension between the two men was personal as well as political and that Cornplanter was responding to this personal competition with Red Jacket in some of his statements in 1820. Certainly the attitudes he expressed at that time were more congruent with the consistent position that Red Jacket had expressed. It should be remembered, however, that they were leaders living at some considerable distance from one another and influencing separated populations, hence not necessarily competitive for the same followers except in a larger political sphere.
Reservation lines were established at the turn of the 19th century and the Seneca populations settled onto various segments of land for which the Holland Land Company held the preemption rights, i.e. the exclusive rights to purchase Indian land. These rights were sold in 1809 to the Ogden Land Company, and no profit from this investment could be made unless the Seneca could be induced to vacate the land. From 1809 the pressure to sell was intense and Cornplanter is referred to as saying “some of the young warriors had said they would kill any chief who should sell any more of their lands, and for his part he thought it would be right.” Every means which the politically influential investors could use to bring pressure on the Indians to sell was used. They manipulated federal and state political opinion to remove the Indians to western lands in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Kansas; they bribed individual Indians and advisors of Indians; and they offered a series of alternative plans by which they would acquire the more valuable lands in the northern part of the state, particularly Buffalo and Rochester, by removing all the Senecas to the comparatively worthless land of the Allegany reservation which was Cornplanter’s center of influence. My own analysis leads me to believe that the Ogden Company was working on “insider information” about the impending building of the Erie Canal and their strategies were tied to that project. By 1819 the pressure toward the Allegany relocation of the total Seneca population was intense.
The Quaker missionaries whom Cornplanter had invited to Allegany as trusted intermediaries consistently supported the Senecas in the goal of preserving their lands, but their judgment was that the best way to do this was to divide the land into private allotments rather than to continue to hold it collectively. The Quakers had originally anticipated that a desire to hold land “in fee simple,” i.e. as private property, would evolve naturally out of their proposed restructuring of the Seneca community into that of male agriculturalists, but, when this program bogged down, they attempted to approach their goal from another angle, that is, directly from that of land divisions.
The on-site Quaker senior representative, Jacob Taylor, was an assertive man and often Cornplanter’s adversary. In 1815 Cornplanter invited the Presbyterians to found a mission on his land because, Taylor writes, “he said friends had forsaken him and that one of us [Jacob Taylor] had said he formerly was like a bright star and gave light to his people, but that he is now a dark lamp or like a rattlesnake that poisons them. However just the simile, it gave great offense for he alleges that such a sentiment coming from a Quaker causes the Indians to think light of his judgment and they sometimes decline to follow his counsel and that he wanted somebody that would not forsake him.” Similes like “bright stars and dark lamps” would be expressed several years later by the Presbyterian, Timothy Alden, but his causal analysis was psychological derangement evidenced by Cornplanter’s rejection of Christianity, and it is Alden who is the primary source on which the secondary sources rely. In 1818, Jacob Taylor arranged, presumably on his own authority, to have the reservation at Allegany surveyed in order to facilitate allotments, but the surveyors were met by a delegation headed by Cornplanter who ordered them off. There were strong factional divisions at Allegany over this issue and Cornplanter was regarded as a strong and rational leader of one of these factions along with his younger relative Blacksnake. The unresolved pressures over land divisions and removal continued to mount and were not quieted for about another 25 years.
By 1818 the socio-political environment was strewn with missionary presence and with conflicting opinions about appropriate strategies for the salvation of the Indians both here and in the hereafter. All the missionaries of whatever persuasion were firmly in agreement with prevailing United States governmental sentiment that the Indians must be civilized and assimilated, but, by around this time, it has been suggested that the Jeffersonian enlightenment view of the noble savage being led on the path to civilization by instruction was being perceived as a failure and alternatives of coercion and separation through removal were gaining ground.
Whatever effects this change of sentiment was having on the Seneca, in 1818 there was a revival of nativistic expression and interest in the teachings of Handsome Lake and a large council was held at Tonawanda to renew the teachings. Timothy Alden related that, at this council, a man arose in the ordinary course of things, who said that he had a dream to tell in which the sun spoke to him and told him to instruct the Indians to repent their wicked ways or disasters would follow. Alden remarks that “he did not however assume the character of a prophet. He simply related his singular dream; yet he appeared to feel as if it should be regarded like a communication from the Great Spirit.” Alden, himself, had no great trouble with verbalizations suggesting spiritual communications as positive events, except when the communications gave instructions contrary to his own opinions. When he visited Cornplanter in 1817 he quotes Cornplanter as saying, “I have long been convinced that we are wrong and that you are right. I have often told my people that we must be wrong and that you must be right because you have the words of the Great Spirit written in a book.” Alden goes on to say that Cornplanter had said that, if it would do any good, he would personally intervene with Red Jacket in favor of Christianity. At this Alden remarks with praise: “Must he not have been blessed with some special communications from the Holy Spirit?”
This, then, is the socio-political climate in which Cornplanter’s behavior around 1819-1820 must be analyzed for its rationality, and the analysis must not rest on the opinions of invested white men, but on the cultural congruence and appropriateness of Cornplanter’s own behavior. We cannot know the state of his mind; we can only analyze the fragmentary bits of information we have about what he did and said and decide whether these are sufficiently bizarre in the historical and cultural context to be judged psychotically inappropriate.
And, of course, there is the continual problem that the behavior is being selected for reportage by white men who may have been predisposed to consider Indian behavior in general as bizarre or, at least, perverse. Considering Cornplanter’s age, it is perhaps astonishing that there was so much public behavior and encounters with white men as were reported. He continued until his death in 1836, certainly past 100 years old, to have occasional public meetings and the white reporters were invariably impressed with his dignity and demeanor. In 1821-22, when the state of Pennsylvania decided to tax his land, he successfully resisted this taxation and delivered a speech at the courthouse in Warren which were in essence another version of his “visions” [those that Alden viewed as deranged and that will be discussed below] but which were here judged not only legally persuading, but appropriate, effective and characteristic of Indian discourse.
(To be continued,)
[NOTE: A professional anthropolgist & an active player in the emerging discourse around an ethnopoetics, Diane Rothenberg is the co-editor of Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (University of California Press, 1983) & the author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis (University Microfilms International, 1976).
Copies of her book, Mothers of the Nation, are still available through Ta’wil Books, firstname.lastname@example.org. Two essays from the same collection, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread" & “The Economic Memories of Harry Watt, were posted earlier in Poems and Poetics, blogger version (December 5, 2008, March 12. 2009, March 24, 2009, & April 8, 2009). “On the Insanity of Cornplanter,” a historical account that touches also on the poetics & problematics of vision in traditional Indian cultures, has only recently been reassembled.]
The poet's novel
When realism isn’t real, where is a writer to go? Meaning, the sentence is a construction which feels at least as habitable as the bus which carries a poet to an unfamiliar town, and the couch upon which the poet sleeps later that night. When realism isn’t enough, isn’t authenticated or represents a fractional or purely outward series of events, poets turn to the body of the sentence upon which to recline, repose, deconstruct and reject any sort of frame which insists upon the “real” being limited to finite perceptions. A sentence may break, with the force of bodily gesture, something more fluid. When I think of the poet’s novel I think of an oblique truthfulness. The choreography of Pina Bausch comes to mind, as an example of art which echoes the interior and bodily aspects of the real. What is the difference between realism and the real? I’d like to preface these remarks by saying that this commentary is in no way a critique of realism, but instead a depiction of a category of the real which attempts something entirely different then say, a realistic novel evoking a specific time and place. In the work of Pina Bausch we are called to question: how does the real manifest in the body? How does the real impel a body to move? How do we represent the unsayable? Take the following quiz to find out some of your own preconceptions and expectations about modern dance.
1. Dancers should:
a. Stand up straight and remain clothed.
b. Writhe on the floor with eyes closed.
c. Manually pick up their legs and move them, as if they were unable to move them in any other manner.
2. Dancers should dance:
a. With eyes open upon tidy even surfaces such as stages, free from hazards.
b. In water, or mud while dirt is shoveled over their backs and faces,
c. On trains, on streets, while pushing lawn mowers.
d. With eyes closed while running across a stage crowded with chairs and tables.
3. Dance should represent relationships through:
a. Synchronized movements
b. Throwing each other into walls
c. Spitting mouthfuls of water onto each other’s faces while lying down.
d. Examining each other’s teeth and hairlines.
e. Embracing, lifting, and dropping each other to the ground.
If you answered “a” to all of the above you may want to stop reading here. If not, you might have a sense of how I hope to draw connections between the choreography of Pina Bausch and the poet’s novel. Can text move in the same visceral way as a bodily gesture? Does one stand up straight in a dance or a text depicting hollow uncertainty or emotional turbulence which follows trauma? What is a sexual text, a violent text, or one which erupts, breaking with expected notions of how one proceeds to represent an aspect of reality which exists primarily in the consciousness? The poet’s novel is the one that stands up and yells something inappropriate during a public lecture. It is also the novel that remains in its seat quietly, yet describes the impulse to scream at various moments, whether or not one does scream. The poet’s novel is the one which might spend three hundred pages contemplating whether one might scream. The inner life is not a series of events. There is no replacement for invisible gestures which occur all day, every day, akin to music, bodily breaking apart sensation, perception, and attempts to make sense of the myriad of non-sensical happenings which surround us.
Did Pina Bausch ever read the novels of Clarice Lispector? An affinity exists between these two artists—a physical interrogation of being which is a philosophy of movement. Writer Rachel Kushner writes on Lispector, in a recent issue of Bookforum:
“‘I’m the vestal priestess of a secret I’ve forgotten,’ the narrator of The Passion According to G.H. says. ‘I know about lots of things I’ve never seen,‘ Lispector says in her own ‘dedication’ for The Hour of the Star. In that same book, she writes that her task, in telling a story, is ‘to feel for the invisible in the mud itself.’ And ‘You can’t tell everything because the everything is a hollow nothing.’ The everything is the mud, the nothing that contains the something. Lispector’s subject, a grasping after the secret kept but forgotten, a kind of noumenal reality, ‘the invisible in the mud,’ is one that most writers don’t even touch on.” 
This mud is the same mud poured onto the stage in Bausch’s Rite of Spring. Perhaps the water which completes the mud is the water on the stage in Bausch’s Full Moon. There is so much water that dancers actually swim across the stage. The elements are essential to both artists, and not the elements in the abstract, but the tactile possibilities of mud. What does it feel like to cover oneself in mud upon a stage? If a writer is “feeling for the invisible” in mud she will probably be there for awhile. Mud becomes not prop but companion, mask, medium of investigation, and reminder of what we are made of. The elemental suggests a brooding as well on mortality. If we aren’t so separate or different from what surrounds us that is because we return to it eventually.
What is plot? Is it a woman standing and looking at a closet for two hundred pages, as in The Passion According to G.H.? Could it be the life of a poor girl from North Brazil, who comes to Rio and remains poor, weak, unattractive, lonely (so lonely she takes to kissing walls), until her death when she is run over by a car, as in The Hour of the Star? Or is a better example of plot, in Lispector’s works meditation on consciousness in place of any character development at all, as in the excerpt below, from the first pages of Agua Viva.
“I am this very second forever in the now. Only the act of love— the limpid star-like abstraction of feeling—captures the unknown moment, the instant hard as crystal and vibrating in the air and life is this untellable instant, larger than the event itself: during love the impersonal jewel of the moment shines in the air, the strange glory of the body, matter made feeling in trembling of the instants—and the feeling is both immaterial and so objective that it seems to happen outside your body. . .” 
The poet’s novel is the “untellable instant, larger than the event itself.” If a feeling is both “immaterial” and “objective” its seeming to “happen outside your body” only complicates an already many-tiered experiential reading or receiving process. When viewing a dance by Pina Bausch, we are well aware that the physical movements made by the dancers are not in themselves the “feelings” or “events” and yet clearly, they capture, suspended for brief moments, the reality of the resonance of bodily experience— of the “untellable,” —like a body in a novel unmoving, yet redolent with thought.
Erica Baum’s Study is a text rich with texture. With contexture. We read the tactility of the woven page, the richness of the colors and the striking design of the background. Its allusiveness: the allusion to a source text. Its elusiveness: the oblique referentiality and poetry of the words.
Coming to the work without any paratextual context or explanation, a reader might first be aware of the ‘bookishness’ of the piece. To the conventions alluded to. These are ‘pages’ or, at least, parts of a book. Time for your close-up, book. There seem to be source texts that inform the work, even if it isn’t clear what the sources are. And these sources may be real or imaginary texts or contexts.
Examining these texts, it’s clear that reading isn’t only about reading words. We read the page, the book, the paper, the ink, the binding, the cover, the type and the relationships between them. We read the history of publishing. We read what it is to read a book. (And what it is to read the digital representation of the material, tactile object. The digital for the digits' reading fingertips.) What is the role of the visual presentation? How do we read this entire ‘text’, a text which encompasses more than just the verbal?
The textured/woven backgrounds seem to allude to printing from decades ago—the retro colors, textures, shapes, and design—and not the printed pages of a book, but rather the covers. I think there were books like these in my in-laws' wood-paneled basement rec room, behind the taupe "The World's Best Dad" statuette, the complete Nancy Drew collection, and the set of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I have a vague memory of these kind of word lists from grade school, or from old readers found in the garage.
How does one read a text that is somehow inside out (some kind of ‘cover’ of a missing original) especially when the verbal elements appear to belong to the inside? How to understand these words that seem to belong to another part of another book?
And what is the 'study' that is being referred to? Is this a 'study' of books, of text, of a context? Is the 'study' the room (a home library/office) where the source of this text came from—a real or imagined study for real or imagined texts?
The words of the texts form poems in their own right, but they seem to be the result of some kind of selection process. The texts are lists (the gathered data of the 'study') as well as poems. And they have been organized with an ear and a mind to both sound and semantic relationships. Has some erasure happened here? There are empty lines quoted, placeholders in the form, or perhaps entries which have been deleted. Are the numbers line numbers or page numbers? Do they say something about where the words have been gathered? And how are we to ‘read’ these verbal elements in the context of the visual?
I'm interested in working with words that have already been employed. And with this in mind I'm always on the look-out for found text. This situation of the text, its context, is always significant to me. I had noticed and been intrigued for a long time with the lists of words at the back of children's readers. The numbers would indicate where the word could be found in the story and sometimes a star might emphasize the importance of word for further study. In a manner similar to my earlier project with indices these lists of words to 'study' both reflect the stories in the books and taken out of their usual roles can take on a life of their own. At times as I initially viewed them and began collecting them they seemed to be calling out with their own stories and rhymes hinting at a more subversive life, not between the lines (of the original story) but within them. By isolating these lists and presenting them out of context I can let this 'other' poem/story emerge. The backgrounds come from selected details on the covers of many different hard cover readers. They are cloth bound painted and shellacked and my reproduction of them highlights their beat up textures and vivid colors. There's a juxtaposition between the bright happy world of this imagery and the absurd dark indications in the poems.
The first poem [see above] provides its own rhymes and rhythm. The numbers are a critical component. The second poem hints at darker events:
Both poems also contain references to the act of writing, "against lines" in the first one and "ink rubbed spots" in the second, evoking the act of writing itself.
The complete Study can be found online.
Erica Baum lives and works in New York. She has had solo exhibitions at Bureau, New York; Lüttgenmeijer, Berlin; and Circuit, Lausanne. Past group exhibitions include "Subject, Index," at Malmö Konstmuseum, Sweden. Her work will be included in the upcoming group exhibition "Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art," at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and the 2012 São Paulo Bienal. Her work was included in the book Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives in Photography, edited by T. J. Demos (Phaidon Press, 2006). Her artist's books include Dog Ear (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), with essays by Kenneth Goldsmith and Beatrice Gross, Sightings (onestar press, 2011), and Bbabaubaumbaudevin (Regency Arts Press, 2012).
Editor-in-Chief: Ou Hong
Honorary Editors: R. D. Gooder; Marjorie Perloff; J. H. Prynne
Executive Editor: Li Zhimin
Board of Editors: Charles Altieri; Daniel Albright; Charles Bernstein; Craig Dworkin; R. D. Gooder; Daniel Jernigan; Li Zhimin; Julia Lovell; Joyelle McSweeney; Ou Hong; Marjorie Perloff; J. H. Prynne; Claude Rawson; Joshua Scodel; John Wilkinson; Xie Ming; Zhang Yuejun; Zheng Jie.
Fragrance and Anger in Milton's Paradise Lost /1
On Gu Cheng: Rise and Fall of a Fairy Tale /13
Sense and Sensibility: Understanding Hughes through Cave Birds / 25
Positioning Brecht's China in Western Intellectual Tradition /35
Emotion, the Enduring Content in Creeley's Poems /57
Incredible Style /79
Editorial Memoir: A Promise /121
Some Notes on EPSIANS /125
pdfs of issues one and two:
Vienna, September 7, 2013, at Ephemeropterae XII, TBA 21, Augarten, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary
00:40 Incantation by Laugher (Khlebnikov)
01:58 The Lie of Art
from All the Whiskey In Heaven:
05:20 Azoot D'Puund
10:26 Rivulet of the Dead Jew
11:08 Doggy Bag
12:36 from "Today's Not Opposite Day" (Nonny)
13:26: In Particular
19:20 every lake
20:25 from Shadowtime
36:46 Johnny Cake Hollow -- 4 versions / translations with Versatorium from Vienna, followed by source poem …
43:46 The Elfking
46:52 Sapphics (from Recalculating)
47:34 Morality (from Recalculating)
49:14 Fare Thee Well
50:02 Chimera (from Recalculating)
51:30 Wherever Angels Go (from All the Whiskey in Heaven)